Insomniac Press Broadens, Focuses on Justice: A Q&A With Publisher Andy Verboom
Insomniac Press has announced a new editorial board and mandate to resist oppression. The revamped publisher now has a strong East Coast connection, with editors Annick MacAskill and Kailee Wakeman residing in Halifax, as does publisher Andy Verboom. The latter generously took the time to discuss with us the new mandate and approach to publishing:
Atlantic Books Today: Could you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself and you became involved with Insomniac?
Andy Verboom: I know the press founder from my time in London, ON for five or six years. I went there for a PhD, which didn’t pan out, but the literary community was going through a kind of renaissance with a lot of activity, new writers, old and young. It was a lot of meeting new people.
I met Mike O’Connor, the founding publisher of Insomniac, through a group of writers I had a workshop with there. Mike, late last year, announced he was looking to bring others on board. I was frankly the only one who had the time to take on the project. Especially because the opportunity came through back channels, knowing people on the ground, I wanted to make sure I didn’t put together a group of just people I knew. The only reason to do it was to make sure it wasn’t another old boys club.
Mike was the publisher for almost three decades. He’s staying on as my mentor until he can transfer—he’s still very active in books, but wanted to move away from traditional publishing.
ABT: It’s exciting that Imsomniac is focusing so much on social justice and equity of representation—what inspired that?
AV: It’s how we’ll operate. It has really been about convincing incredibly talented authors and editors who are all already community organizers to trust me enough to come together. They steer the ship. I have committed to doing most of the rowing.
I don’t think I could replicate the success of the way the board has already gelled together. I don’t know if it was luck, or all to do with these editors and how ready they were to do this work. I just reached out to people whose political stances I trusted more than my own, including a couple of absolutely cold calls.
ABT: You’ve stated that writer safety is of paramount importance to Insomniac. Why is that so important to you? What does writer safety look like?
AV: Writer safety isn’t really an issue for me personally because as a writer I’m so multiply privileged—race, gender, orientation. So many writers are at a real risk of their experience with publishing doing damage to them, and to their writing.
The board discusses all external editors before working with them. We’re trying to start from a very safe place. Trying to develop practices to stay safe through the process. We don’t want submitting to us to be a risk of becoming stuck with an editor who isn’t going to be good for you or your book.
The author is given a choice of which editor they want to work with, an in-house or external editor. Somebody might have a dream editor and there is just no way we can get them. But we work with the authors to develop a short list of editors they’d like to explore.
After we’ve paired them up with an editor they think is a perfect match, we’ve got an additional shadow editing process with an in-house editor staying current with the exchange [between writer and editor] through cc’s on email, to monitor the situation, to reach out to the author if they feel the editor has crossed any sort of line.
In the worst-case scenario the shadow editor could come on as the editor. The three external editors we’re working with this fall–one brought to us a posthumous collection of poetry, which involved bringing in family members. In the other two cases, the editors were totally on board, and everyone was fine with the idea.
The shadow editor can be relatively impartial. I’m trying to remove as much of the possibility of me screwing up as possible. We’re trying to allow the editorial relationships to flourish. The goal is not to meddle. The shadow editor doesn’t offer feedback unless asked.
ABT: Insomniac now has a strong Atlantic Canada connection, with a publisher and two members of your editorial board—Annick MacAskill and Kailee Wakeman– based in Halifax. Was this a planned initiative to broaden the publisher’s reach, creating a more nationwide network of leadership? Or was that more a case of that’s where the talent happened to be?
AV: Despite my best efforts to cast a wide net, I trust Kailee and Annick’s judgement as readers and editor,s as people aware of their own privilege. I started here and worked my way back to London.
We did have two other editors join the board earlier on who couldn’t stay on, from New Brunswick and British Columbia. We were looking for an even greater geographical spread.
But the board isn’t fixed at six. We’ll be looking for at least one more. I want editors to feel ownership over the press. I’ll be looking to distribute ownership. Having an editorial board of this size guarantees a lot of institutional memory, even if we have two new board members coming in a year.
ABT: How are you expecting all of this to manifest into specific book projects? What can readers expect from Insomniac going forward?
AV: Mike O’Connor found some really important niches, a lot of gay and lesbian genre niche. As well as Black Canadian studies.
We’re hoping that instead of having niches, to have a full catalogue that is a little more difficult to break into niches. We want to be a welcoming place for inter-sectional folks.
The books will be political. We’re publishing some books by white men this fall, but they’re explicitly political texts, exploring masculinity or ecological texts. Not necessarily manifestos, but trying to work against varying forms of oppression.
We are also going to move away from more traditional forms of distribution, away form big chain stores and Amazon into a more cottage industry form of distribution. A greater number of small print runs, targeting independent bookstores. And we’re trying to move away from a more typical capitalistic model, into shared ownership.